Author Archives: Christopher Morris

ORR VIII.25 Further Functions of the State and Practical Paretianism

This section is very interesting, though it might be less exciting than the others in this chapter. It focuses on the question of state provision of public goods and addressing negative externalities. The last section takes up forms of “practical paretianism”, some very influential today. One of the things distinctive about Jerry’s liberalism is his attitude to a state function that is widely accepted, namely, provision of public goods.

In 25.1 Jerry comments on the quotation from Green that opens the chapter. At the end of the rich passage, Green says “That, however, is the beginning, not the end, of the state. When once it has come into being, new rights arise in it and further purposes are served by it.” Green was not as adverse about the further purposes as we might be. Jerry wishes to examine what further purposes states may serve after it has assumed the role “as interpreter and protector of social morality”. Might there be a function of states as “providers of services and goods that are not morally required”? In our time, ever since the rise in the influence of economics or what used to be called political economy, the first task that comes to mind is the provision of public goods or, more colloquially, the remedying of “market failures” (i.e., externalities). With what are known technically as public goods, the benefits accrue to people independently of their contribution to their production. They thus create what is called a “collective action problem”, which often approximates an n-person PD. The two defining features of a public good are indivisibility (once produced it is available at no additional cost to anyone) and nonexcludability (it is not feasible or efficient to exclude people from enjoying the good). The thought is that states may or should step in and facilitate the production of the good, taxing people for the costs. If all goes well, the result will be mutually beneficial for all or, more colorfully, progress towards the Pareto frontier.

Jerry rightly points out that there are alternative institutions and communities capable of addressing many public goods problems. Given how dangerous state action can be — and I would add, clumsy — Jerry argues that we should seek assistance first in non-statist approaches. But he concedes that there are “times when the state and its coercive power appear to be the only viable way to cope with some problems. In these cases, the provision of public goods is, at least in principle, capable of publicly justifying state coercion” (533). He rightly points out that the costs of providing the good in question must considered when raising the question.

25.2 considers a problem with this abstract case for the state provision of public goods, namely, “that few goods are purely public”. If some Members of the Public prefer no good to particular packages of goods and costs, then no proposal for producing the good will pass. The result is constraining, “a severe restriction on the range of justifiable public policy.”

Posted in Books, Posts, Reading Group | 1 Comment

OPR VIII, Sec. 24, Private Property and the Redistributive State

I apologize for my tardiness. I have fallen behind in my readings, but I was also ill this week and am only today rising (from bed). I expect there will be a number of corrections to be made in what I say. [Lesser points and asides are often bracketed.]

Sects 24 and 25 are likely to be as controversial as the others in this chapter. In 24, “Private Property and the Redistributive State”, Jerry defends a three basic propositions:

– Private property rights are justified in Jerry’s theory at a relatively early stage, and this constrains what is to follow.

– Socialism will not figure in the eligible set.

– A variety of redistributive frameworks will also be rejected.

I’ll start with the first (subsect. 24.1). Jerry starts by reminding us that in 18.3 he established private property when considering public justification in conditions of evaluative diversity. There, following a suggestion of an early John Gray, Jerry argues that a jurisdictional conception of private property rights are what “deeply pluralistic social order[s]” need to handle their disagreements. A jurisdictional conception of private property rights understands property as “a sphere in which one’s evaluative standards have great authority for others” (374). [Small point: The name of this account, used by Eric Mack in his interesting account of rights, can mislead if one comes to think that the authority of the property owner rivals the state’s jurisdictional rights. If one wanders onto the land of the US federal government, that is, the land it owns, then one is subject to its authority (in the sense above). But even on one’s own land in the US one is subject to the jurisdictional authority of American government (at different levels), or so the latter claim. US law is supposed to determine what counts as ownership, etc. The state’s authority is jurisdictional in a more elementary sense, I think, than the Mack-Gaus one.]

Jerry grants that property rights depend more on the state than other rights. “… the right to private property must be interpreted and developed, but to a far greater extent than other abstract rights, is definition depends on the state” (509). This is largely true, though Jerry could have used a less misleading word than ‘definition’. And it is always worth remembering that there was a great deal of property prior to the rise of modern states. [The political conditions of medieval life typically defy being categorized as either “states” or “states of nature”.] Again, on the next page: “Thus, far more than other basic rights, the political order determines our rights of property.”

Posted in Books, Posts, Reading Group | 3 Comments